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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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Rags to Riches


Identity & Perception

Reveal Source

Ali, Haydar. Horse and Groom. 16th C. Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Was'h. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.,_Horse_and_Groom,_by_Haydar_Ali,_early_16th_century.jpg.

Bihzad. Fettered Camel and Keeper. 15th C. Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC.
"Darya-e-Noor Diamond of Iran." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Description Ambassade Perse Auprès De Louis XIV.jpg Ambassade Perse Auprès De Louis XIV, 19 Février 1715. 1715. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Eden, Emily. Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Treasure. 1844. The British Library, London. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Elephant (Fil), from Aja'ib Al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation), by Al-Qazvini. 15th C. Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC.
Folio from a Divan (collected Poems) by Awhadi; Verso: An Encampment; Recto: Inscription. 1615-16. Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC.
Folio from a Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones) by Jami (d. 1492); Verso: Bandits Attack the Caravan of Aynie and Ria; Recto: Text. 1556-1565. Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC.
Hindi, Muhammed Riza. Portrait of Nadir Shah. 1740. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Homann, Johann Baptiste. Jomann Imperium Periscum (Map of Persia). In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Hussein, Zakir, performer. "Tabla Solo in the Rhythmic Cycle of Jhaptal (10-beat Cycle)." In Ustad Mohammad Omar: Virtuoso from Afghanistan. Smithsonian Folkways, 2002, CD.
An Important and Rare Contemporary Portrait of Nadir Shah. 1740s. Private Collection.
Nader Shah Afshar. In Wikipedia Commons.
"Nader Shah's Shield." Digital image. Iran Chamber Society. Accessed January 15, 2010.
Nadir Shah (Nadir Qoli Beg, Tahmasp-Qoli Kha). Jonas Hanway: Zuverläßige Geschichte Der Englischen Handlung Durch Rußland, über Die Caspische See, Nach Persien, Der Tartarey Und Türkey, Armenien Und China. Samt Einer Beschreibung Der Landesbescha. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Nadir Shah, of Persia with His Chief Minister C. 1675-1700. National Gallery of Canada, Toronto.
"Noor-ol-Ain Tiara of Iran." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Plan Van Fort Kandahar. 1738. Courtesy of Harvard Map Collection, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Portrait of Nadir Shah. 1743-44. State Hermitage of Russia, St. Petersburg.
Portrait of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. 17th C. State Hermitage of Russia, St. Petersburg.
Ram, Sita. The Market-place at Karnal. 1815. British Library, London.
Shah Mahmud Hotak. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 01, 2010.
Shams, A. Ahmad Shah Durrani. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Simpson, Sir Benjamin. Ruins of Old Kandahar Citadel. 1881. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
Unknown. Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne Which Was Carried off by Nadir Shah in 1738-9. 1774. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Producer: Kate Harding


Reveal Transcript

In the 1690s, a boy was born into a poor herding family in the northeast of the Safavid Empire. When he was 13 years old, his father died, and he and his mother were sold into slavery. His mother would die in captivity, but the boy escaped and joined a gang of bandits. His name was Nadir Shah and he would rise to become one of the most important–and violent–rulers in history.

By the time Nadir Shah became an adult, the Safavids were struggling to keep their empire together. They had hoped to negotiate trade and military support from the French, but soon the Afghan leader Mahmud Hotaki seized their weak capital. Meanwhile the Russians and Ottomans were pushing against the northern and western borders. A few Safavids remained in power, but the region was descending into anarchy. The Great Persian Empire was dwindling.

Nadir Shah, the orphaned herder, dreamed of restoring the Safavid territories. He began building a small army with the stolen loot from his escapades, and this army attacked Afghan strongholds. In 1729, he pushed the Afghans back into what is now southern Afghanistan.

Soon thereafter, he attacked the Ottomans and the Russians, winning territory and consolidating a growing empire. By 1736, the poor orphaned boy declared himself shah.

Now, as Shah, he began to look East. In 1738 he destroyed Kandahar.

Next he took Kabul, Ghazni, Peshawar, marching steadily towards his ultimate goal: Delhi.

Fear spread throughout the region as he advanced deeper into India. Nadir’s army attacked the Mughals in Karnal, 70 miles outside of Delhi. They were too strong for the disordered Mughals.

His soldiers plundered Delhi and killed as many as 200,000 Indians while Nadir kept up residence in the Chandni Chowk fort.

Finally the Mughal leader, Mohammed Shah, begged for mercy. He gave Nadir the keys to his treasure trove and Nadir took possession of the imperial jewels.

Among the jewels in the treasure was the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond – the diamond that would eventually end up in Queen Elizabeth’s crown.

Nadir was finally satisfied with the bounty and agreed to withdraw from Delhi, returning to Persia with the jewels, and thousands of elephants, horses, and camels – all while riding atop the Mughals’ Peacock Throne – reputed to be the most ornate throne in the world.

But the Indian campaigns were the height of Nadir’s glory. He soon began sinking into maniacal cruelty. He blinded his own son in a fit of rage and then immediately executed all those who had witnessed the act.

He began taxing his people relentlessly to pay for his military campaigns, and soon revolts were breaking out throughout the empire.

In 1747, he was assassinated by one of his own guards. His nephew replaced him but the empire Nadir had built would soon disintegrate under its own weight. Ahmad Shah Durrani would proclaim independence from Nadir, leading the way to the formation of a modern Afghan state.

Nadir Shah was a maniacal ruler of Persia who was perhaps best known for pulling off one of the greatest treasure heists in history.